HYPERTEXT MARKETS: A REPORT FROM ITALY

Walter Vannini

Italy resists comprehension--unless one resorts to the die-hard junk stereotypes of cultural folklore. An uninitiated and unbiased observer, when attempting a serious analysis of the country's current economic and political situation, is likely to go cross-eyed and start blithering. At the social and the cultural level, the situation is equally chaotic but marginally less schizoid. Being a chaotic and contradictory country is perhaps the one stereotype Italy still complies with.

Even coming down to the relatively limited context of hypertext publishing, the same Brownian confusion holds: a neutral observer would find all sorts of strikingly contrasting tendencies and chaotic behavior, large investments and technological incompetence, marketing frenzy and schizoid policies, entrepreneurial resourcefulness and corporate dumbness, media galore and academic inertia, free enterprise and monopolistic rushes--all happily coexisting in a cultural environment not even a Zen master could reconcile into harmonious Unity. Please feel free to start blithering now.

If one were to derive any nationwide trend from the choices of the mainstream players (publishers, renowned academicsand intellectuals, etc.), the landscape would be disappointingly dull and belie the wealth of uncoordinated, sometimes naive but mostly genuine, endeavors taking place behind the scenes. A clear-minded, highly determined investor in electronic publishing and hypertext may find fertile ground in this country, though such an investor would do well to adopt a quite literal interpretation of the term "venture capital."

LITERARY HYPERTEXT AND ITS MARKET

Hypertext is a relatively new concept in Italy, and hypertext literature even more so. The first published hypertext here was the Italian adaptationof Michael Joyce's "Afternoon, a Story" by Alearda Pandolfi and myself in late April, 1993 (Castelecchi Editore). The work was co-published with the first hypertext fiction by an Italian, Lorenzo Miglioli's "RA-DIO," which went to three editions in five months. The volume was the first in a series of hypertext works titled "Elettrolibri."

Since then, hypertext has met with enormous success in the popular media and (oddly enough) in print, with a large number of reports and critical volumes dedicated to the topic. And this despite the fact that only a handful of hypertexts have subsequently been published.

This is not to say that the field of hypertext literature is being ignored. The success of "Afternoon" has revealed a genuine grassroots interest, and numerous lectures on the subject are held regularly throughout Italy. While mainstream publishers for some reason ignore the groundswell and remain incapable of providing works of value in hypertext, niche publishers in Italy, like small-press publishers of "literary" fiction in the U.S., are ready to exploit this opportunity.

The more adventurous among hypertext publishers have had to overcome enormous distribution problems and marketing costs. (Suffice it to say that "Afternoon" had to be marketed as a book-plus-disk rather than as a disk alone in order to be accepted for sale in bookstores.) The complete absence of alternative distribution channels is perhaps the main reason for the apparent sluggishness of the literary hypertext market. Another reason is the limited diffusion of home computers and the consequent low level of computer literacy (at least in the general public: a quite different picture emerges when age distribution is taken into account). Not to mention the terminally low level of computer literacy among writers,publishers, academics, and intellectuals in general.

Judging from our experience with "Afternoon" and from reader feedback, hypertext is a niche market, but its buyers represent an interested and intellectually active audience, eager forworks of value and absolutely unintimidated by the alleged "dryness," "cgnitive overhead," or "disorientation" that, if we are to believe its critics, accompanies electronic reading.

PRINT PUBLISHERS AND HYPERTEXT/ELECTRONIC PUBLISHING

The last three years have witnessed fairly large investments from mainstream companies in the field of electronic publishing. Almost all large publishers have started producing electronic titles internally and distributing foreign titles. Joint agreements abound among publishers, TV moguls, large hardware and software companies and telco companies (more or less paralleling what has happened in the US). More often than not, these investments seem to have been made in the rush of the moment, without a clear strategy or a precise understanding of the electronic medium.

Consider for example the announcement, more than two years ago, of Italy's first electronic magazine, "Epoca on-line," by one of the major Italian publishers. The announcement was made in what press people would call "Hollywood style" (the ceremony even featured Dr. Negroponte as a special guest). In spite of all the money in evidence, however, the project was founded on sand, as was instantly revealed by its incredible slogan "Everything As If It Was On Paper." Three years later, the online magazine is going strong, while its paper counterpart has since gone belly up and disappeared from the newsstands.

The interest among mainstream print publishers seems to have settled on electronic titles of a more traditional kind than hypertext, i.e., multimedia, "family entertainment," and educational/recreational titles, mainly on CD-ROMs. The catalog for such work is fairly rich, even if most of them are quick-and-dirty (and sometimes very dirty) recasts of previously published material. For the moment, most of these titles resemble the worst of documentary television, and require more or less the same amount of interaction (i.e., next to none at all).

(An exception would be Eco's latest work"Encyclomedia," but this one deserves separate consideration in another essay.)

Off the mainstream, the situation looks more promising. The publisher of "Elettrolibri" is now going to put on the market a second original hypertext, "Ustica War Zone" by Giles Wright, a novel and essay on the 1982 mystery downing of a DC-9 above the Ustica island, Italy. The title, which was repeatedly delayed because of new findings in the still-open investigation, has gathered some interest and should also become a sort of open investigation file when its HTML version is issued later this year, with the help of the Rome municipality and an Association of Ustica Victims. Other publishers are presenting original works in electronic or hypertext form. A "Hypertext Forum," which recently went up on the World Wide Web, opens its discussion to authors, readers, and critics. In general, however, publishers still prefer to "electrify" existing works or to create electronic collections of previously printed material. As yet, collaborative experiments such as "Hypertext Forum" still seem more oriented to probe the market than to conquer it.

The problem as I see it is that of growing a generation of electronic writers (since electronic readers seem to exist already) in a country where computer literacy is generally low and even lower in the Humanities. Yet computer literacy is not the only quality needed by an electronic writer. I envision two prototypes for the future electronic writer: the young intellectual, still unbiased, energetic, and open to new ideas; and the underground writer, working in urban collectives, social centers and the like, who makes a mission of experimentation. The former usually has little or no computer experience; the latter often is a computer fanatic. I've seen good ideas and trivial ones come from either kind.

HYPERTEXT IN ACADEMIA

The traditionalist-conservative approach characteristic of mainstream print publishers goes hand in hand with an equally traditionalist, but sincerely less understandable, attitude in the academic and literary establishment. As a matter of fact, especially when it comes to the Humanities, the number of computers in our Universities is terminally low, and most courses don't even include classes in the use of computers. This sad situation, which of course presents humanists as innocent victims, is worsened by that part of the academic establishment which characteristically shows resistance, when not downright antipathy, to computers.

In the past years, our Universities have sponsored a growing number of workshops on hypertext, but always with detachment, as if the academics were all saying: "I have to mention it, because it's the dernier cri, but don't think I want to get involved." The result is that only one University has so far followed George Landow's approach of getting computers in the hands of students and so making hypertext both the means and the target of teaching.

I could speak of a "cultural resistance" to hypertext on the part of humanist academics. The prevalent attitude is that of forced lovers, paying lip service to hypertext while in effect trying to trivialize and ignore it. I have collided a number of times with the attitude that voices itself, at first, with scholarly caution--"we should not forget the importance of analyzing the new technology in the context of current critical theory"--only to end up in dismissal:"well, it's really nothing new: Derrida, Queneau, Baudrillard, and Eco have already gone that far; no use in spending time on it." Not that this attitude is without its funny side: a professor in a university in northern Italy demanded that his student not use the term "hypertext" because it did not appear in the dictionary.

Eco himself, some of whose works, together with Calvino's, are often cited by hypertext authors as a source of inspiration, is among the forced lovers even if, master that he is of language and its subtleties, most people think he is an advocate of electronic writing. Two years ago, during a workshop on "the future of writing", his most favorable line was that hypertext "could eventually be of some use" to the literary world. No later than four months ago, during another workshop, he conceded that hypertext "can work for encyclopedias, manuals, and non-fiction, "but "paper remains the best possible means for reading and writing."

This attitude, and often these same words, are unfortunately echoed by all those who want to avoid serious discussion of the evolution of our media, language, and culture and who therefore trivialize the new media, often mistaking causes for effects, goals for means. Only a few weeks ago, in a report on electronic publishing by Italy's second largest newspaper, a columnist brought out the old saw, lamenting that "electronic titles . . . can't be read in bed or in the bathroom."

Luckily, this is not the whole story. A number of academics, and an even greater number of research assistants and students, are taking on hypertext. A literature professor in the University of Turin is already working with hypertext tools in his classes. Hypertext is making its way into the law school at the University of Trento, in literary studies at the University of Modena, and in social studies at the University of Urbino. A Professor in occupational medicine at Modena has recently published a hypertext essay on his discipline.

These are but a selection of examples meant to show that, despite a general atmosphere of resistance, a vital component within academia is already pursuing possibilities opened by hypertext. These people have to overcome enormous difficulties, including lack of funds and the chronically shortsighted attitude of our Ministry of Education. Nonetheless, judging from the projects I have seen, it won't take long before their efforts are internationally acknowledged.

REVOLUTIONARY HYPERTEXT: AN ITALIAN EXCLUSIVE

Lest readers of this report should think that Italy is a reactionary country and that hypertext here is doomed, I'd like to close by noting that the country has witnessed one of the most innovative and daring uses of hypertext so far: hypertext as an instrument to promote social change (yes, the headline was only to catch the eye). I'd guess most reader will be aware of the "clean hands" investigation, that in the past three years has helped to produce a deep reshaping of our political landscape. It might be thought of as the Italian equivalent of a Watergate scandal in which two hundred members of congress and as many Senators were indicted, together with the key executives of the ten top corporations in the country.

Public prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro, with the help of some computer science students, has used hypertext to collect, reorder, correlate, and analyze the several thousand pages he was going to bring to Court, and to get hold of an investigation that spanned fifteen years, ranged over ten countries, and involved more than a hundred people. This hypertext material was enriched with scans of documented evidence and video clips from depositions--all of which was brought to Court in order to support the final address (which lasted four days). I think the importance of this precedent cannot be overestimated. Together with the projects by offstream publishers and academics, it constitutes hard-to- ignore evidence that, despite all establishment resistance and industrial ineptitude, Italy's cultural and entrepreneurial ground is still fertile and capable of confronting the challenge of hypertext.


Walter Vannini (vannini@uqbar.cirfid.unibo.it) is a computer scientist and has done research on hypertext since 1987. He chairs LinkIt!, ACM's Italian SIG (Special Interest Group) on Hyperness (Italian SIGLINK). In 1993 he started his own hypertext and Internet consulting company, Human Systems.

Contents


Copyright (C) 1995 The Electronic Book Review
and the author. All rights reserved.
URL:http://www.altx.com
Mail:ebr@uic.edu